It Can be Done: Improving African-American College Access at Public Flagships

Blogs, Letters & Testimonials

July 23, 2020

By: James Murphy

In a recent post, Words and Deeds, ERN called out the University of Michigan for underserving Black students in the state. We can imagine their objection, namely, that it is difficult to recruit African-American students, particularly those students who are disadvantaged by low-performing schools with little to no college advising, who come from low-income households, or who would be the first in their family to go to college. 

This challenge is magnified by Michigan’s ban on affirmative action, which was approved by voters in 2006. Highly qualified Black students, this line of defense typically continues, are heavily recruited by very selective private universities with more financial aid to offer, which makes it even harder for public universities to enroll as many African-American students as they wish.

We disagree.

At some level, we have to assume such defenses have some validity. How else to explain the abysmal African-American enrollment rate at many public universities? In a recent report, the Education Trust gave more than 75% of the 101 most selective public universities in the nation an F when it comes to enrolling a representative share of Black students from their state. The University of Michigan got one of those Fs.

And yet, not all selective public institutions have failed at improving access to Black students in their state. Compare the University of Michigan’s trajectory since 2003 to SUNY-Albany’s. The two universities began in the same place, but Albany has more than doubled the share of African-American students it enrolls.

The improvements that SUNY-Albany made are particularly striking because New York and Michigan are almost demographically identical when it comes to the share of 18-to-24-year-old residents of each state who are African-American. 

The University of Louisville is another public university where the proportion of Black students enrolled is actually larger than the state’s populace. Black enrollment at the University of Michigan, on the other hand, represents only about a quarter of the state’s Black population.

The University of Michigan might call these comparisons unfair, since affirmative action was not banned in New York or Kentucky. It is true that the university’s African-American enrollment suffered in the years after the ban, but how did the University of Michigan compare to other flagship universities in states where affirmative action was banned? In a nutshell, not well.

Washington banned affirmative action in 1998; Michigan in 2006; and Arizona in 2010. Despite the bans, the University of Arizona and the University of Washington-Seattle actually increased African-American enrollment in the years after their referendums passed. At the University of Michigan, however, Black enrollment was cut almost in half in six years and has remained flat ever since. This despite Michigan having a much larger African-American population than either Washington or Arizona. Those states certainly have room to improve, but they also prove that a ban on race-conscious admissions is not by itself an excuse for falling Black enrollment. 

What makes Michigan’s declining commitment to African-American students even more egregious is that, unlike the other universities under discussion here, it has a large national reputation and draws students from across the country, which should make it easier to recruit Black students from all fifty states.The University of Michigan should look to its peers across the states as inspiration for making a meaningful commitment to diversity in the years to come.

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